Looking Back


Baking Bread is Back


One of the changes that COVID-19 has brought to us is a renewed interest in baking bread. For a while, it seemed that grocery stores had a very limited supply of flour and yeast as people were afraid that they would no longer be able to buy bread. Did workers now compelled to stay home take up baking as a way to fill time or be creative?


This might make us think back to the last century when there simply was no bread to buy and baking several loaves was almost an everyday ritual. Looking through the old cookbooks in the Onoway Museum and at some of the implements used to bake bread might alert us to how far we've come (or how spoiled we've become?). Today you just dump the ingredients in the bread machine and wait for the beep that tells you it's done.


It hasn't always been that easy.


How the early settlers made bread is almost too difficult to imagine. It started with grinding wheat to make flour and making yeast from hops and potatoes. Some starter dough was kept from one batch to the next to provide the "yeast". Tough to envision. It's an easier leap forward to times when you could buy sacks of flour and cakes of yeast or even dry yeast.


Most old cookbooks introduce bread-making with comments similar to this "... it is almost impossible to make bread without experiencing the sweat of the brow and an aching back. The three important requisites to the making of good bread are: good flour, good fresh yeast, and strength and endurance to knead or work it well." Aunt Babette's Cook Book, Foreign and Domestic Receipts for the Household published in Cincinnati, c1889.


Most farm wives made bread dough in an enamel pan, kneaded it for a long while (10 to 30 minutes) depending on how big a batch and the type of yeast), then let it rise in a warm place before cutting it into loaf-size balls and shaping to fit the pan. Another rising, then it's ready for the oven.

Tips on kneading bread (from another cookbook)

      Should leave your hands perfectly clean

      Work with the palm of your hand, kneading toward the centre of the ball

      Dough must re-bound like a rubber ball.

Robin Hood Flour Sack

Bread Flour sack

Flour was sold in cotton sacks which were then re-cycled, often into pillow cases or diapers. The instructions for removing the dye are still visible here: "to remove ink soak overnight in cold water then wash out with soap and hot water.

Flour Bin and Pan

Flour bin and pan

Flour was usually purchased in 100-pound sacks, then stored in a metal flour bin (this one is 27 x 15 inches). Bread was made and let rise in a bread pan, often made of spotty blue enamel. The pan is 17 inches across x 7 inches deep

Yeoman Flour Pitcher

Yeoman flour pitcher

Flour manufacturing companies often published cookbooks to help sell their products. Local merchants joined in giving away gifts like this ceramic pitcher which advertised baking supplies.

Try to imagine how much time and effort went into making enough bread for a threshing crew of 10 to 12 hungry workers. Or just making enough bread for a growing family.


But progress brought better ovens (no more wood-burning stoves), dry yeast, bread-maker pails (smaller amounts, no kneading), then breadmaking machines (1986).


There is nothing that beats the smell of fresh-baked bread coming from the oven! Try it! It's easy to do in COVID times!

Bread Maker Pails

Bread maker pails

An advance from kneading was bread maker pails. The instructions are on the lid of the pail: "Put in all liquids first, then flour. Turn 3 minutes. Raise in pail. After raising turn until dough forms a ball. Take out cross piece, lift out dough with kneader." That's all there is to it!

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Last updated: March 7, 2021